When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I could ride my horse for hours without even seeing a car. We cruised through oak-covered hills, along dirt roads, and through shady canyons with only the chirping of birds to distract us from the trail.
These days, trail rides around my home in Southern California are very different. Although I’m fortunate enough to live in a community with well-groomed bridle paths and slow speed limits, trail rides are still a challenge. Barking dogs, sputtering motorcycles, and kids on skateboards are all regular obstacles on my rides.
Urban trail riding is essentially a video game on horseback. No matter where you look, something scary is coming at you. More and more trail riders are finding themselves living — and riding — in densely populated areas, thanks to urban sprawl and loss of wilderness trails. But that doesn’t mean you still can’t enjoy yourself on an urban trail ride — as long as you have the right horse.
It took me a long time to find a horse able to cope with all the stimuli I encounter on my rides. It wasn’t easy, but it can be done. Here, I’ll provide you with details on the disposition, experience, and training you should look for when shopping for an urban trail horse.
Urban vs. Rural
Anyone who’s ridden in both wilderness areas and on urban trails knows all too well the differences between the two types of riding.
Wilderness trails are generally quiet and serene. The main challenges in this type of riding are terrain and wildlife. Riders may have to negotiate water crossings and steep, narrow trails. They may also come across an occasional deer, bear, or coyote.
While all these obstacles can be challenging and call for a well-trained and obedient horse, they don’t compare to the obstacles riders encounter on urban trails.
A typical ride through an urban area is guaranteed to challenge both horse and rider in ways that only this type of riding can. Urban trails present some or all of the following on any given day:
•Barking dogs in yards that either charge the fence or hide in bushes waiting to leap out and terrify your horse.
•Motorcycles, trucks, and golf carts.
•Skateboards, scooters, and street bikes.
•Roadside trash, such as floating plastic bags, old couches, mattresses, and discarded kitchen appliances.
•Buzzing electrical or telephone equipment.
•Baby strollers, Big Wheels, and bouncing balls.
•Tennis courts, golf courses, and soccer fields.
•Horses, llamas, ostriches, or pigs in pens or pastures.
•Road crews with ladders, jackhammers and heavy equipment.
•Lawnmowers, weed whackers, and welders.
•Holiday lawn decorations.
It’s possible to have an enjoyable ride despite all these challenges, but only if you have a horse that can cope with it.
The kind of horse suitable for urban trail riding is one that has the disposition to handle a lot of stimuli without coming completely unglued. Some of this can be accomplished through training, but much is inborn.
The Right Disposition
"Probably the most important characteristic of a good urban trail horse is the horse’s disposition," says retired mounted police captain Marc Hedgpeth, of Lake Forest, California. He’s also a Certified Horsemanship Association-certified riding instructor and owner of Equestrian Services, a training company that specializes in training mounted police officers and providing sensory and obstacle training to civilian riding groups.
"It is essential to have a calm, willing horse who clearly enjoys being out on trail."
The horse’s innate personality is crucial when it comes to urban trail riding. Horses that are nervous by nature and aren’t even completely relaxed in their home environment won’t be able to handle the challenges of urban trail riding.
"Urban trail is a very diverse and constantly changing ride style," says trainer Lynn Smothermon of Lynn Smothermon Training in Orange, California, who specializes in recreational and competitive trail horses. "We never know what will be around the next corner, down the next street or over the next hill, if you’re riding in a multi-use regional park."
When evaluating a horse for urban trail riding, Smothermon looks for a horse with a level head, and one that shows courage in the face of new objects and obstacles.
"I want a horse with a curious nature and the tendency to stand his ground when unfamiliar things approach or pop out at him," she says. "The horse should also show a willingness to trust the rider for direction, overriding his own fear and flight instincts."
A horse that will be asked to negotiate the challenges of urban trail riding should be willing to learn and be exposed to new things, according to police horse trainer Rick Pelicano of Pelicano Equine Training in Frederick, Maryland, and author of Better Than Bombproof (Trafalgar Square). He notes it’s also a good idea to choose a horse that isn’t herd-bound.
"A quiet horse can quickly turn into an unmanageable mess when separated from his buddy," says Pelicano. This is a situation that can be particularly dangerous on an urban trail.
When evaluating a potential urban trail horse, Hedgpeth suggests you look for a horse that shows interest in new things, but doesn’t show fear.
"You don’t want a horse that balks, snorts and shies away from his shadow or the trashcan he sees every day," he says. "You want a horse that enjoys the challenge of traveling on urban trails. Ideally, your horse should enjoy the trail ride as much as you do."
Training & Experience
Good urban trail horses are both born and made. Training is also an important factor. Even a horse with a great temperament will still need exposure to urban trail riding to become completely comfortable with it.
Whether you buy a horse that’s already well-broke to the urban trail or is an urban trail prospect should depend on your experience as a rider.
"This choice depends on the rider’s experience and/or her willingness to invest in time and training," says Smothermon. "If the horse and rider are both inexperienced, serious injury and the development of adverse behaviors in both the horse and rider are inevitable."
If you’re an inexperienced rider, Smothermon recommends buying or leasing a seasoned urban trail veteran you can learn on under a trainer’s guidance.
"This is the safest possible way to expose the inexperienced rider to the numerous urban trail-riding challenges," she says. "Riding a veteran urban trail horse will build the rider’s confidence and skill levels necessary so she can purchase a younger, less experienced horse in the future."
Smothermon also points out that seasoned urban trail horses hold their value. "Good veteran trail horses can usually be sold within the boarding stable or neighborhood because of their reputation," she says. "This makes letting go of an old friend easy because you know he’s going to a good home."
But Hedgpeth notes that such seasoned horses are often hard to find. "An experienced urban trail horse is certainly nice to have, but the first question that would come to my mind as I look at an experienced trail horse is, ‘Why is the owner selling the horse?’
"The old saying, ‘Past conduct is the best indicator of future performance,’ certainly applies here. But just because a horse has been previously used for urban trail riding doesn’t mean that the horse will meet your needs as a trail horse."
Hedgpeth says he’s seen horses that have been used by their owners as urban trail horses simply because of limited options. This doesn’t necessarily mean the horse is good on the trail.
"Some of these horses present a
challenge to their rider every time they
go out on trail," he says. "The horse might be spooking at everything, pinning his ears, balking, and generally presenting clear indications that he is unhappy about being out on trail. But the owner ignores this behavior and has just learned to deal with it."
Buying a horse that has the right disposition to make an urban trail horse but needs training is also a viable option for a rider who has the experience to work with the horse or the resources to hire a trainer.
"I don’t think getting a horse with prior urban trail experience is important at all," says Pelicano. "We all have to start somewhere."
Pelicano says you can buy an inexperienced urban trail horse, then use the mounted police approach when teaching the horse to go on urban trails.
"In police training, we always train the new horse with an experienced horse," he says. "Using progressive training principles, we start somewhere low key and build gradually to a city environment. It’s all about progressive training and repetition in a positive environment."
Knowing what you want in an urban trail horse is the first part of the journey in finding your mount. The next step is evaluating prospects.
Pelicano evaluates horses for police mounted training and finds that the same criteria work well for urban trail horses.
Before he looks at a prospect, Pelicano asks basic questions about the horse’s age, medical history, and training and work background. If he likes what he hears, he tells the seller that he needs to see the horse ridden.
"I want to see the walk, trot, and canter in both directions and anything else the horse knows, such as leg yielding, rein back, etc.," he says. "This is the time for the owner to show off the horse."
If this goes well, Pelicano then rides the horse. He looks for a horse that’s compliant and willing to go at a quiet walk, trot, and canter.
"If you want to see how the horse reacts to strange objects, bring a few props with you," he adds. "Ask the owner if he will show you how the horse walks over a tarp or ground poles. Bring balloons for the horse to walk by. Hang a trash bag on the fence, and see how the horse reacts when you ride by it."
Pelicano adds that if the owner objects to you using obstacles to evaluate the horse, view this as a red flag.
"Find out why the owner objects," he says. "It may just be that the horse isn’t used to this kind of stimulation. But also be suspicious that there is a hidden problem."
Unless you’re a very experienced horseperson, Hedgpeth strongly advises getting help from a professional horse trainer to assist you in the evaluation of your prospective horse.
"Ideally, your trainer can ride the horse before you get on," he says. "Watch how the horse performs for your trainer, and listen carefully to the evaluation she gives you. Many horse trainers have a very good understanding of how a specific horse will match up with a specific rider."
Hedgpeth notes that a professional horse trainer should be able to provide you with an unbiased, objective evaluation of the horse.
In a similar vein, Smothermon recommends taking stock of your abilities. "Make a list of your strengths and weaknesses," she says. "Then think about whether you’re going to ride on your own after you buy a horse or pay for instruction."
Before you make a decision, consider getting assistance from a professional or from a knowledgeable friend who rides within the environment you’ll be in, says Smothermon.
"Be sure to have a veterinarian do a prepurchase exam," she says. "Many vets ask the seller to fill out a questionnaire about the horse, and ask the buyer her intentions. The vet will then make recommendations based on this information."
Next, drive, hike, or bicycle around in the area where you’ll be riding and make a list of questions to ask the seller. For example, you’ll want to ask if the horse is safe in traffic and on the street, whether he’s afraid of bicycles, how he is around strollers and kids and dogs on leash. Ask if he’ll cross water, ride in a group or alone.
"Be specific," says Smothermon. "A question not asked won’t get answered."
Before you get on the horse to try him out, use your common sense, says Smothermon. "If you don’t like what the seller tells you, don’t ride the horse," she says. "If you like what the seller says but don’t feel good about the horse during the test ride, get off, thank them, and leave. Trust your intuition. It will take care of you."
Audrey Pavia (www.audreypavia.com) is a freelance writer based in Norco, California. She’s the author of Trail Riding: A Complete Guide (Howell Book House) and Horse Health & Nutrition for Dummies (Wiley). Pavia rides competitive trail with her 9-year-old Spanish Mustang, Milagro.
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